Case Study:

Elly, Susie and Natasha: The runners

Teacher: Elly, Susie and Natasha
Site: Koala Children’s Centre
Year level: Early Learning

Context

Elly, Susie and Natasha are teachers at Koala Children’s Centre, a site which is working to integrate Reggio Emilia-inspired approaches in an early learning setting. All three teachers first learnt about the Regio Emilia approach during their teacher training at university. Since then, Elly and Susie have had further professional development, whether through the Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange, or through working with a visiting pedagogista from Reggio Emilia, Italy. Natasha has been at Koala Children’s Centre for two terms, and has continued to learn about the Reggio Emilia approach on-the-job through her colleagues. For all three teachers, the concept of culturally responsive pedagogy was essentially new to them when they joined the research project, although they had encountered some of the underlying concepts previously.

Koala Children’s Centre serves a culturally and linguistically diverse community in northern metropolitan Adelaide. This diversity includes Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Languages other than English spoken in the home include Arabic, Punjabi, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Italian. Unemployment in this community is above the state average and some families are struggling to make ends meet.

Families using the children’s centre come from a range of backgrounds. In 2018, approximately 60% of children were from culturally diverse families, and more than 20 different cultural groups are represented at the site. Approximately 45% of children speak a language other than English at home, including Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati, Arabic, Bangala (spoken in the Congo region), Dari/Farsi, Mandarin, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Italian and Spanish. Accessing adequate support for children who speak a language other than English and for emergent bilingual children is an ongoing challenge for the staff. Many of the children and their families have complex needs around language, trauma, and special rights. With more than 90 children enrolled, the children attend in two designated groups, and each group has two seven-hour sessions per week. Staffing includes three teachers, two early childhood workers and two or three support educators. Children have access to large indoor and outdoor spaces. The site is keen to engage more closely with the local Aboriginal community but is unsure how to enlist and involve an Elder or community leader on-site.

The pedagogical challenge

Elly, Susie and Natasha came to the research project with a specific pedagogical challenge that they were hoping to understand and address.

All year, a large number of children had been engaging in running for long periods of time throughout the day. While running is usual early in the year, a preoccupation with running was persisting each term. The running didn’t seem to have an observable structure or storyline. The key runners were demographically diverse (both male and female, a range of language backgrounds, with and without special rights), and their running attracted other children to join in. The staff viewed this as a pedagogically problematic because, by choosing to engage in running all day, the children were not broadening their learning through the range of other experiences  on offer. It was difficult to engage the runners in other activities except when working one-on one-with an adult.

Staff had tried numerous strategies to address the running, including providing a range of sensory experiences, scaffolding play, offering small group play, helping children to further develop play and social skills, and involving children in a range of play spaces. However, the running persisted.

During earlier work with a pedagogista, the site had been exploring the rights of the child. One of these rights is to be surrounded by beauty and wonder and a range of possibilities and opportunities for new and challenging learning. It is important to stress that staff at Koala Children’s Centre understood that the children were running because it fulfilled a need for them, physically, socially and/or intellectually. They did not want to ‘ban’ this behaviour as it was obviously meaningful to the children. However, they wanted to further challenge the children’s thinking and uphold their rights to know and explore the other possibilities for learning. Therefore, the pedagogical goal was to supplement the running by engaging the children in additional activities to support their growth and development.

The multifaceted problem for Elly, Susie and Natasha, and indeed for all staff at the centre, was carefully teased and framed as follows:

  • How can staff re-direct the children whilst honouring their interest and need to run?
  • How can staff understand why the children run? Why don’t other types of movement fulfil that need?
  • How can staff broaden the children’s engagement in experiences to support their learning and to provide challenge?

The action research question

How can changing the learning environment increase children’s engagement in a range of experiences?

For the staff at Koala Children’s Centre, the learning environment encompassed both the physical environment (space, layout and equipment available) and the systemic environment (routines, organisation of time, arrangement of group and play sessions).

Links to Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

  • Strongly connected to children’s life-worlds
  • Recognition of culture as asset

From their readings of the culturally responsive pedagogy literature, two resources were considered particularly powerful. ‘Raising children in the Nunga Aboriginal way’ (Malin 1996) reminded Elly, Susie and Natasha of the importance of viewing children’s experiences of home and family from a strength-based perspective, and to be vigilant for the assumptions that underlie white privilege. ‘Guidelines for preparing culturally responsive teachers for Alaska’s schools’ (Alaska Native Knowledge Network 1999) was a very practical resource that gave staff a ‘benchmark’ against which to gauge areas they were satisfying and those that might need more work.

Links to the Reggio Emilia approach

  • Image of the child as competent and capable
  • 100 languages of children
  • Learning as a process of group construction
  • Honouring the rights of the child

In exploring their research question, Elly, Susie and Natasha identified points of connection between their developing understanding of CRP and their existing appreciation of the Reggio Emilia approach. From these two educational theories, two concepts particularly resonated with them and seemed to complement each other:

What the teachers did

Elly, Susie and Natasha began their research by identifying key runners to focus on. They selected three children from one of the designated groups, and four children from the other group. They then developed a comprehensive and methodical data collection schedule which included:

  • Interviews with focus children (what they enjoy at kindergarten, their friends, about running)
  • Interviews with the parents of focus children (for information about children’s preferred activities at home)
  • Timed videos of focus children taken at various points during the day
  • Written time sampling records
  • Running records
  • Replaying videos of the running to all the children (seeking their input and understandings of the experience)

During this phase, Elly, Susie and Natasha regularly reflected on the data and discussed their emerging theories. It was becoming obvious that the running was driven by a need for social connection, unfamiliarity with the centre’s environment and experiences on offer, and the children’s prior knowledge of play from home. The teachers developed a profile of each of the focus children to better inform their curriculum planning for each individual and for the children as a group.

Child A Male 3 years Aboriginal heritage
  • Early entry
  • Sensory processing needs
  • Speech delay
  • Single parent family
  • Previously complicated living arrangements
  • High activity levels at kindy and home
Child B Male 5 years White Australian
  • Autism and Global Developmental Delay
  • Severe receptive language and moderate expressive language delays
  • Sensory processing difficulty in a range of areas
  • Fine motor and gross motor difficulties
  • Separated parents
  • High energy levels fixed behaviours
  • Spends significant amount of time at home watching television and playing on devices
Child C Female 4 years White Australian
  • Speech and language delay
  • Undiagnosed possible developmental delay and sensory processing difficulties
  • Possible hearing problem
  • Siblings with intellectual disability and speech and language delays.
  • Family disengaged from kindy and support services
  • High activity levels at kindy
Child D Male 5 years Vietnamese
  • EALD
  • Undiagnosed sensory processing needs
  • Living with his parents, sister and elderly grandparents
  • High activity levels at kindy and home
  • Spends significant amount of time at home watching television and playing on devices
Child E Male 5 years White Australian
  • High sensory needs
  • Lives with parents and younger brother on large block of land
  • High activity levels at kindy
  • ‘Outdoorsy’ family
  • Struggles to listen to other’s perspectives
  • Fixed interests
Child F Male 5 years Indian/Sikh
  • EALD
  • Was slow to develop English language skills
  • Continued concerns around receptive language skills
  • Family have been difficult to engage
  • Attends OSHC after kindy
  • Began attending childcare for the first time at beginning of year
  • Spends significant amount of time at home watching television and playing on devices
Child G Male 5 years White Australian
  • Global Developmental Delay
  • Speech and language delay
  • High sensory needs
  • Minimal space at home for downtime due to full household
  • Very short attention span
  • High activity levels at kindy and at home

As they began to better understand the children’s life worlds beyond kindy, Elly, Susie and Natasha—working with their colleagues— experimented with changes to the daily routine. For example, the staff reviewed the learning space to ensure that they were providing a range of experiences both indoors and outdoors. They incorporated more active play into the day, utilising the adjacent oval on a more regular basis for running and structured games. Rather than larger groups, each staff member took a smaller group of four to six childen for a range of experiences. Children were strategically grouped according to their individual learning goals, and to involve and support them in experiences that they didn’t regularly visit. They increased opportunities for multisensory play such as gloop, finger paint and active play on mats (crash and tumble, spinning etc.).

All of these changes were beneficial, but it was still unclear what was actually prompting the running.

Breakthrough!

In their interviews with focus children, Elly, Susie and Natasha noticed that language around ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ recurred. And in one interview, where a video of a running session was replayed, the focus child said, ‘Oh, I’m playing Hello Neighbor’. The term ‘Hello Neighbor’ did not mean anything to the teachers, but the child explained that it was something he had seen involving a knife and blood. A Google search revealed that Hello Neighbor is a video game that includes a lot of running. This breakthrough gave Elly, Susie and Natasha an entry-point to learn more about the children’s life-worlds. It soon became apparent that the running was inspired by a range of YouTube clips, television programs and interactive games, including Angry Birds, Fortnite, PJ Masks, Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles. These games and programs involved repetitiveness, violence and dramatic actions, and almost all included running.

Now that they knew the inspiration for the running, Elly, Susie and Natasha were able to review their data through a new lens and formulate a more targeted and informed response. They decided to use the children’s knowledge and excitement about the different screen-time characters and scenarios  to engage them in a broader range of activities. For example, in one small group, a child who runs was asked to explain the game to the other children who do not usually engage in running. They then all played the game and discussed it together in a peer-to-peer setting. The children came up with modifications to the game that involved constructing with building blocks. And rather than simply endorse screen-time characters and scenarios , the teachers encouraged the children to critique and extend on them to further their learning.

In effect, Elly, Susie and Natasha set the children up for success by encouraging them to share their expertise while challenging them to use this expertise to engage in aspects of the curriculum they would normally avoid. In doing so, they wanted to value the children’s life-worlds while also upholding their right to be challenged in their learning.

Outcomes for the children

Once the life-worlds of the runners were brought into other learning experiences, these children were the most engaged, focused and eager that staff had ever seen them. The children were involved in discussions, brainstorming and questioning, which was very exciting considering all but one of child spoke English as an additional language or dialect. The level of problem solving and communication between the children grew considerably; they worked cooperatively and collaboratively and they accessed a range of experiences they normally wouldn’t such as mask making, writing, drawing, painting and construction.

Engaging with children and families in different ways during the data collection period and incorporating children’s lifeworld knowledge into learning experiences and group work has resulted in children showing an increased involvement in a wider variety of experiences while at kindy. Qualitative and quantitative data collection, including observations and follow up time sampling, has demonstrated that the focus children on-the-whole spend increased amounts of time engaged in indoor and table-top play, are more focused during their play, and spend increased amounts of time engaged in each experience. These children are now able to feel successful and have their input valued and this has resulted in these experiences becoming more meaningful to them.

Challenges

The action research was not without challenges. Elly, Susie and Natasha openly acknowledge their concerns around using products that commercially target children as vehicles for learning. This was an uncomfortable and challenging transition for all of the staff. However, they have learnt that it is important to be more open-minded about incorporating children’s life-world interests into pedagogical practice. It is possible to create a balance and to be creative in the curation of experiences and environments to promote a range of engaging play where the children’s interests are recruited for learning.

It was important to ensure that the entire staffing team understood the importance of the project and the elements within it. Elly, Susie and Natasha had certain strategies in place to ensure all staff could stay ‘in the loop’, including making a ‘reflection book’ available and holding a whole-team staff meeting. However, due to different responsibilities, finishing times and commitments, it was a challenge to have in-depth conversations with all staff. They hope to develop further strategies that allow the entire staffing team to be engaged with action research, irrespective of their roles or work patterns. This will hopefully provide a strong consistency of practice among the staff and inspire all educators to share their own pedagogical journeys with the team.

Conclusions

As a result of this action research, Elly, Susie and Natasha are committed to learning more about the life-worlds of the children and families that are served by Koala Children’s Centre. In future, they plan to invest more quality time with each family early in the first term in order to gain a deeper understanding of each child’s life-world, including their physical activities, routines, relationships and connections to family and friends, screen time, interests at home, and any behaviours that play a role in their learning and development.

By taking time away from the centre and engaging with academics and colleagues, these teachers feel that they have rediscovered the importance of ‘educator as researcher’. There is a sense of excitement sparked by the discoveries they made throughout the research process. They now feel that they wear a researcher hat among the many others that teachers wear.

References

Alaska Native Knowledge Network (1999) Guidelines for preparing culturally responsive teachers for Alaska’s schools. Assembly of Alaska Native Educators: Anchorage, AK.

Malin, M, Campbell, K & Agius, L (1996) Raising children in the Nunga Aboriginal way. Family Matters, 43, 43-47.

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